This blog post by Peter Spellman originally appeared on his blog "Music Career Juice". Peter is the Director of Career Development at Berklee College of Music, and the author of several books about the music industry including "The Self-Promoting Musician" and "Indie Business Power".
Great Musician / Working Musician
Each fall and spring I have the privilege of speaking to Berklee’s entering class about how to navigate a successful music career. Here’s how I usually begin my talk:
Who here wants to be a great musician?
Who here wants to be a working musician?
Does one necessarily follow the other?
If only great musicianship guaranteed career success! The questions, of course, are designed to get these young musicians thinking about how they can turn their musical passions into sustainable careers.
But you know the answer.
Great musicianship will not necessarily result in a sustainable music career. Great musicianship must be combined with additional ingredients that may at times seem far afield from core musical passions. But are they really so far afield?
Why does one musician succeed while another struggles? From where I sit, here are some reasons favoring music career success:
- A keen understanding of the marketplace & a strong ability to communicate and engage with it. When you boil all marketing tools and tactics down to their essence, what you have is communication. Marketing is essentially communicating so well with your audience they want to know more about you. Even artists who don’t seem to give a hoot about “working the market” often have associates who are constantly scanning the landscape for touch points that will work for the artist’s career.
- Abundant self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is important so that you don’t create any illusions for yourself. It assumes you have put yourself through a review – what’s worked so far in your life, what you can do without, where your passions really lie. Self-knowledge is knowing who you are and what you want to do with your life, and this means committing to goals – defining them, planning them, knowing that with enough planning and dedication and hard work, you’ll meet your goals.
- The right combination of integrity and cooperation (knowing when to say no and when to say yes). Integrity means internal consistency based on decided values. Artists inevitably encounter opportunities or relationship that pull at their integrity. All partners in successful relationships know how to compromise when negotiating each other’s needs. They fully expect to give up some things and strive for fairness in those decisions. There is an art to negotiating the balance between these two things and those who can will grow their career assets more quickly than those who can’t (or won’t).
- Willingness of others to work with you (based on track record, industry reputation, personality, quality of the opportunity). Do you know what others think of you? How they would describe you? A reputation is built inch by inch over years. Each act of generosity and kindness will sow seeds towards a future harvest. In truth, it doesn’t matter how hard you work on managing your reputation, it will only ever be as solid as your actual character. Good character acts like a magnet. People are drawn to it. If you’re seen as a dreamer with little regard for clocks and calendars you’ll probably limit your musical associations; if, on the other hand, you’re seen as a clear-headed professional who shows respect to others and others’ time, you’ll magnetize the same to you.
- An ability to raise necessary resources and support. This goes with the previous. The community of cohorts that grows around you becomes your network of support: support for ideas, for short-term projects, for creative alliances, and for long-term profit too. Forging creative alliances is key to building a multi-dimensional music career. Teaming up can multiply your efforts and move your career in an upward trajectory. Teams share the burden and divide the grief.
The “working” part of the phrase, “working musician” should always be broadly defined. Especially in the early stages, a career musician will wear a number of hats. You might be a Performer-Writer-Teacher, or an Arranger-Mixer-Editor, or, more likely, a Singer-AdminAssistant-Barista or Producer-Babysitter-Sales Associate. That’s appropriate; all of us have done it.
Musicians are often slow starters but good finishers if they stick to their knitting. Nurture these five qualities and you’ll go a long way towards thriving career success.
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